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Does Putin have a vote in U.S. elections?

International relations scholars have a ‘good chat’ about U.S. elections and foreign policy.

Last week, I looked at what recent research tells us about whether foreign policy will be a major issue in the 2024 election. Spoiler alert: the answer, as in 2016, is probably not – and last night’s Republican debate didn’t change that. But the election will have major consequences for U.S. foreign policy. 2024, like 2016, presents two likely nominees with clearly contrasting visions for how they would steer U.S. foreign policy after 2024 – especially in terms of confronting Russia and standing by Ukraine.

Reacting to my post, Ken Schultz, a scholar of international relations who has written about the consequences of partisan polarization for U.S. foreign policy, posed this question on Bluesky:

The thing I think about: the GOP shift means that Putin has [an] enormous stake in the outcome, much more than in 2016. So what strategies does he have? Even if voters don’t care about [foreign policy] positions, does Putin have leverage over things they do care about? Inflation, escalation?

Good question! Actually, multiple questions that require a range of expertise to address. So, we invited a group of scholars, as well as Ken, to chat about it.

Marina Henke is professor of international relations at the Hertie School in Berlin, and an expert in European defense and security policy. For 2023-2024, she is Helmut Schmidt Distinguished Visiting Professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Nadiya Kostyuk is assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy (courtesy) at Georgia Institute of Technology, and an expert in the role of technology in international security, especially cyber conflict. Rachel Myrick is the Douglas and Ellen Lowey Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, and has written extensively on partisan polarization and U.S. foreign policy. And Ken Schultz is professor of political science at Stanford University.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Elizabeth N. Saunders: Welcome everyone. Ken, thanks for your original reaction to my piece. Can you elaborate a little bit on your question? 

Ken Schultz: Thanks, it’s great to be here with everyone to chat about this. My question was motivated by the observation that as the parties come to have more distinct views on foreign policy, other governments have a greater stake in the outcome of U.S. elections. And while we know that voters aren’t likely to pick candidates based on, say, their position on arming Ukraine, voters do care about things like the state of the economy, the perception of U.S. security, even U.S. casualties in foreign conflicts. And these are things that foreign adversaries have some influence over. As someone who does game theory, I always like to think: What can the other side do? Bluntly, does Putin “have a vote”? And if so, how does he “cast his ballot”?

Nadiya, let’s start with escalation. I don’t think most analysts expect Putin to use nuclear weapons or willingly engage in combat with any NATO country. But he has other tools, like cyber attacks, at his disposal – and as you’ve written, he hasn’t used them as much as expected in the war in Ukraine. What do you expect in 2024?

Nadiya Kostyuk: The short answer is “not that much” or “not to an extent that it would matter.” 

That’s a familiar conclusion here at Good Authority. Can you elaborate why?

Kostyuk: Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, pundits expected Putin to use cyberattacks to coerce Ukraine to bow to its demands. But as prior research shows, cyber operations are not effective in coercion due to their limited ability to create physical effects, among other factors. After the invasion, pundits expected cyber operations targeting critical infrastructure in Ukraine to serve as a complement to the Kremlin’s military operations.

In fact, we did not see many cyberattacks with the potential to cause significant damage. The two that come to mind are the Viasat attack and the attempted attack against Ukraine’s power grid. The first attack had a limited effect and did not cause any real damage. The second attack only demonstrated the incompetencies of Russian cyber teams.

So you are saying it is a good idea to change our passwords.

Kosstyuk: Yes, it is always a good idea to change passwords [smiling]. 

It’s fascinating, though, to hear that the Russian cyberattacks were not competently executed. We know the Russian military has had a lot of problems but we have this image of Russia as a superpower on the internet. 

Kostyuk: Russia has significant cyber capabilities and its hackers are among the best in the world. But they did not perform to the best of their abilities in Ukraine, to the surprise of many. It could be because the Kremlin did not expect this war to last that long. Russia executed the Viasat attack a few hours before its invasion to limit the internet connectivity of the Ukrainian military. We saw a few wiper attacks that followed the Viasat attack, but all were rushed and poorly executed. The next round of somewhat significant attacks took place months later, in the fall of 2022 – perhaps because it takes time to find vulnerabilities in the networks and systems that are worth exploiting.

Importantly, the main cyber activities that we have seen in this war on the Ukrainian territory and beyond its borders are cyber espionage and cyber-enabled influence operations (think disinformation, fake news, leaks, propaganda). I have no doubt that Putin will continue executing those. This trend could reflect the growing value of information that could potentially change the balance of power (not in this war, though) – an argument that Erik Gartzke and I make in this piece. 

So is there anything Putin could do to reach beyond Ukraine? Sure, he’ll do more influence operations and espionage, but could he do anything that a politician in the U.S. could label cyberterrorism? I can imagine THAT might get voters’ attention.

Kostyuk: Yes, there is a fear (that requires some more empirical testing, and something that researchers here at Georgia Tech are working on) that Putin can launch either a cyberattack or an influence operation in a swing state to sow doubt in the legitimacy of the elections. In fact, my research on cyber terrorism shows that about 90% of the survey participants recruited from the U.S., UK., and Israeli public are likely to label a cyberattack that results in a leak of private information as an example of cyber terrorism (you can think of a DNS hack). I don’t know if leaks might take place before the elections (hopefully they won’t), but an influence campaign to attack the legitimacy of the U.S. elections (even if no interference, in fact, took place) might get voters’ attention. 

What’s hard to even picture though – trying to think like Ken and imagine what the response would be in the U.S. to such an attack – is how U.S. politicians would react, given how scrambled the parties have become in terms of their Russia policy. But we’ll get to that later. Thanks, Nadiya.
Let’s turn to Marina. You’re based in Europe, where last year the big worry was heating costs – and then the winter was mild. Still, the war in Ukraine continues to put upward pressure on food and gas prices. What do you see as the big risks ahead that might affect not just the 2024 U.S. election, but also the U.K. general election, and European politics in general?

Marina Henke: European efforts in reducing their gas, oil, and coal dependencies on Russia have been truly impressive. The European Union cut oil imports by 80% from Russia, natural gas imports by roughly 50%, and coal by almost 100%, but inflation is still a problem because the new sources where Europe gets its energy from are more expensive: Norway, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. 

In some countries right-wing populist parties are exploiting these issues and gaining in the polls. In Germany the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party stands at roughly 21%, and the governing Social Democratic party at 17% in national polls. The AfD has pro-Russian views and if they continue rising in the polls and winning elections, there is a real chance that Germany’s support for Ukraine will stop. Russia has supported the AfD in the past – financially and in kind. So that is a real problem. 

Trump has made no secret about wanting to use a second term to withdraw the U.S. from NATO. Could Putin “cast his vote” by adding fuel to the fire (sorry) you’ve just described? Or does he have other tools to undermine alliance solidarity and exploit the growing isolationism within the Republican party?

Henke: Overall, if the U.S. no longer supports Ukraine, Europe will not do it alone. All indicators point towards the direction that Europeans would then try to find a settlement with Russia. Why? For one, they think they can’t do it by themselves and then they are also quite divided. 

Are the fractures that are reemerging within Europe another divide Putin could exploit? I’m thinking of Hungary and Poland (which has upcoming elections).

Henke: Absolutely. Interestingly, also in Poland voices critical of Ukraine are rising because of Ukrainian grain. Ukraine has been exporting almost all its grain via Poland because the Black Sea is closed for shipping. The deal was that the grain was only to be shipped through Poland, but what happened was that it also got sold, hurting local Polish farmers. And Poland’s ruling PiS party relies heavily on the farm vote. 

So you are saying Putin is voting early and often.

Henke: Yes, he has a vote in every European country. But the divide isn’t just East-West though. We have seen three blocs emerging. The staunch Ukraine supporters: most Eastern European countries, Scandinavian countries and the U.K.; then the bloc that’s much less in support of NATO policy: Hungary, Austria, Italy – for a while I would also have put France in there but Macron has changed. And in the third bloc are those in between: Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, etc.

Thanks, Marina. So we’ll all need to pay attention to election nights in Europe next year, too.
Okay, so turning to Rachel, let’s try to think about how all this lands for the U.S. audience. You have written about the effects of partisan polarization on U.S. foreign policy, including how in a polarized world, external threats are not the potent unifier politicians might expect them to be. What does that mean for how the U.S. electorate will react to whatever Putin might do in 2024?

Rachel Myrick: So my initial reaction to Ken’s question was that this was two questions. First, what strategies might Putin use? Nadiya and Marina pointed out four: escalation in Ukraine, cyber influence or cyber terrorism, impacts on the U.S. economy, and undermining alliance solidarity. 

But the second question is whether these strategies would affect outcomes in 2024? On this second question, I think through the potential impacts – and I’m skeptical. 

On escalation in Ukraine, it’s not clear to me that this would materially change the 2024 outcome. For all the reasons Elizabeth outlined in her recent Good Authority piece, the public doesn’t tend to vote on foreign policy. Even in 2004, when many of the presidential debates focused on the Iraq War and U.S. casualties, American voters said their top priorities were the economy and healthcare.

On cyber influence, I imagine the U.S. intelligence community will be more attuned to this possibility in 2024 relative to 2016. And there is still a lot of debate about whether Russian interference in 2016 affected electoral outcomes – that’s because misinformation and “fake news” tends to be consumed and amplified by ideologically extreme voters who already have strong political views.

On the economy, this was to me the biggest question mark from Ken’s question. My thinking is that if the economic impact is marginal, it won’t substantially impact vote choice because perceptions of economic well-being are highly partisan now. If the economic impact is dramatic, then the actions Putin takes could be clearly attributed to him. And of course, the Biden administration would be vocal about what Putin was doing and why. In that scenario, we might still expect much of the Republican base to blame an economic downturn on Biden rather than Putin (and Republican candidates to capitalize on this), even if it seemed obvious that Putin was to blame. But those voters would not be supporting Biden anyway. 

That’s a key point. The economy is not the same issue it used to be for U.S. voters – even perceptions of how the economy is doing are filtered through partisanship. 

Kostyuk: I share Rachel’s skepticism. I have no doubt that Russia might try to influence the public perception of the elections – whether it would be through a cyberattack or through information operations. Such an incident might cause a delay in obtaining the election results (due to the need for a vote recount when the margins are too close). But cyber actions are unlikely to affect the election outcome in 2024. 

Myrick: A final point, on allies: A wedge between the U.S. and Europe benefits Putin but doesn’t necessarily affect how Republican candidates position themselves for 2024. I think it’s not a good talking point for the Republican nominee to say, “Under Biden’s leadership, our alliances have frayed” when a lot of the Republican base is already skeptical of U.S. commitments to European partners.

This all makes sense and is consistent with your research on polarization – threats just don’t unify voters when the public is this divided. But, what about an incident that could be labeled cyberterrorism? Nadiya’s research suggests that might matter to the public. Of course the new twist is that Republicans are less likely to want to confront Russia for its actions. What do you think would be the reaction if there was an attack on the U.S.? Which party would even have the incentive to try to be vocal about it as a threat or label it as cyberterrorism?

Myrick: Right, I think it’s a bit hard to envision what a cyberterror attack would look like in practice. And of course, the response depends a lot on the scale of the attack. But in general, responses to security threats are increasingly reflecting the partisanship of the environment in which they are introduced. The Biden administration would certainly have incentives to be vocal about it as a threat and attribute the attack to Russia, but again, it’s not clear whether there would still be partisan disagreement over either the source of the attack or how the U.S. should respond to it. 

Schultz: I think it’s useful to revisit Nadiya’s distinction between a cyber attack that does physical damage and one that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the election (e.g., compromising a voting machine). As Rachel said, it’s harder to know how the first plays out, but the second would create an opening for Trump to contest the outcome of a close election. In general, I think strategies that complement Republican messages (e.g., elections are rigged, Bidenomics is causing inflation) are more likely to be effective because voices in the U.S. would amplify their effect.

But before we all freak out about this scenario, I am reminded that both the U.S. and Russia have been careful not to risk escalation or anything that could be perceived as an attack on a NATO country (which is, under the treaty, an attack on all). So, hopefully, this is pretty unlikely.

Henke: What we clearly see is that Putin is looking for weaknesses to exploit. One case in point is Kosovo, where Russia seems to be involved in stoking unrest between the Kosovo Albanians and the Serb minority. E.U. and NATO forces are still stationed in Kosovo – the vast majority of them are European NATO forces. They seem a little overwhelmed by the situation. If the situation in Kosovo further escalates, it might once more undermine alliance cohesion and reinforce European beliefs that they can’t take on Putin by themselves if the U.S. pulls out. 

I wonder if we will see Putin try to exploit more weaknesses in places that let him avoid a direct confrontation with NATO (up to a point).

Kostyuk: Russia has been very active in Transnistria, in eastern Moldova. The Moldovan government has been quite busy dealing with Russia’s subversive operations there. 

Okay, let’s pull back a little. As professors we all grade students on whether they actually answered the exam question we asked, not the one they hoped we’d ask. So Ken, did this conversation answer your question? 

Schultz: Yes, but it also left me curious about so much more, which is the best kind of answer to get. A+

What are you curious about? What directions should we be thinking about (oh, say, for future Good Authority posts, just to pick an example totally at random).

Schultz: To some extent, I hope some of the questions raised here remain hypothetical. I don’t really want a lot of observational data on how the U.S. reacts to cyber terrorism on its territory. 

That’s for sure.

Schultz: But I think this highlights the importance of research on how voters respond to various threats and conditions. I also think there is useful theoretical work remaining to do on how to deter escalation in cases like this.

Myrick: In addition to researching how voters respond to foreign threats, I think we also need more research on how foreign adversaries perceive and respond to polarization in the United States.

Kostyuk: To add to Ken’s point, it is important to research whether and how new technologies, such as cyber and AI, change the public perception of what constitutes a significant threat that demands a governmental response. 

Henke: I would want to see more research on European attitudes toward a world in which the U.S. conducts an isolationist foreign policy. My hunch is that most Europeans are in total denial. Although Trump gave them a first taste of it, there is very little understanding in Europe of how serious these isolationist tendencies in the U.S. are. 

Schultz: Sounds like we have work to do!

I think we’ve got several dissertation topics right there.

Kostyuk: Absolutely!

Myrick: My main takeaway from this conversation is that I need to be on Bluesky, or else I will miss out on Ken’s very good tweets. Do we still call them tweets?

Schultz: They’re called “skeets.”

Rachel, I have a code for you! But I will wrap up this chat with a plug for you, and all Good Authority readers, to use our new comment function (at the bottom of every Good Authority post). It’s moderated, so no bots or trolls. Next time, Ken, you can pose your question there and everyone can help answer.
Thank you everyone, this was a really interesting and thought-provoking conversation.